April 29, 2003

Does Ownership Matter in Local Television News?

Local Versus Non-Local Ownership

Local Versus Non-Local Ownership

Many critics of large, chain ownership over the years have postulated that local ownership is better because the people who run the company would be more concerned with the community if they lived there. This, the argument went, would lead to more sensitive, serious and informed coverage of local concerns.

The data offer no support of this argument.

Local Owners vs. Non-Local Owners:
Local and National Topic Coverage
Local
78%
80%
National
22
20
Total
100%
100%

We defined a local owner as one whose headquarters is located in the metropolitan area of the station. For example, Sinclair Broadcast Group would be a local owner for its Baltimore, Maryland, station, WBFF, but not for its St. Louis station, KDNL. (We exempted the network O&O's located in New York and Los Angeles, since historically local news is not the heart of these company's activities.)

Locally owned stations tended be below average in quality.

In all, only 7% earned "A's" (compared with 21% for non-local stations).

They were almost as likely to earn "F's" as non-locally owned stations (6% vs. 7%).

Are there specific characteristics of local versus non-local ownership?

The data suggest there may be. Locally owned stations tended to be slightly less enterprising and, perhaps surprisingly, also tended to be less likely to cover local topics.

The locality of ownership seemed to have no significant bearing on such questions as the quality of sourcing in stories, story length, or the tendency of stations to frame stories around their larger implications.

Specifically:

  • On Enterprise: Locally owned stations were about as likely to send reporters to the scene of scheduled events such as trials and press conferences (25% of stories vs. 26%). These differences, however, are small.
  • On Localism: Locally and non-locally were similar in their coverage of local stories (78% for local versus 80% for non-local).

Non-locally owned stations performed better in regard to story sourcing, and as often follows, presented more stories with multiple viewpoints (40% for non-local vs. 37% for local ownership). In addition, non-locally owned stations were likely to present slightly longer stories, and were somewhat more diverse in the range of story topics. All of these factors contributed to the differences in quality scores.

What else might account for the finding that locally owned stations are less likely to be the very best? One possible explanation may lie in the pressures associated with operating in one's hometown. Perhaps having the boss nearby is a kind of inhibition, from soaring too high or too low.

Owners and family members may watch the program and are more likely to be members of local civic groups, charities, or the community social and power structure. Station management may be more likely to hear from these owners about news content. Perhaps these connections lead employees to be less inclined to reach outside of community norms or take chances. These same pressures, however, may also keep locally owned stations from dipping too low in quality, even if doing so would help profit margins.